That time I met Lok ChitrakarI met Lok Chitrakar at a chya pasal near Patan Dhoka. I was supposed to have met him at his studio a few blocks away, but at the last minute he informed me of the change in locations—the man had been invited there for a media event by an organisation that had funded the revamping of the Patan area.
I met Lok Chitrakar at a chya pasal near Patan Dhoka. I was supposed to have met him at his studio a few blocks away, but at the last minute he informed me of the change in locations—the man had been invited there for a media event by an organisation that had funded the revamping of the Patan area. Though he was weary of public events, as a local he couldn’t say no, he said. When I got there, I asked him if he was done with his other engagement, he said he wasn’t sure and pointed at a distance where a photo op was going on. There was a flurry of flashes and it was over. Then the NGO people got into their cars and drove right past us. They had forgotten about Chitrakar. “Ke garne?”
Lok Chitrakar is an amiable man but not easily given to words, not even enough to interrupt a photo op he had been invited to. I had found him sat at the chya stall, stalling, unable to decide how he wanted to spend his afternoon. I asked him about his latest project—painting a new façade on the old Dhoka. Asking about the iconic entrance should have been a good way to enter a conversation. It was not. “What else?” Chitrakar was far more interested in talking about others and had found it difficult to talk about himself.
He introduced me to the sauni of the chya pasal. She greeted us warmly, they were old friends. The two other patrons stood up and shook our hands, one of whom was Viplob Pratik, though at the time I had no idea who the poet was. Later that night, while staring at my empty glass I had glanced up at the television to see Pratik accept some award or the other which made me think back to the tea stall. It was a warm afternoon and everyone there clearly enjoyed having Lok dai around. Through the course of our conversation, so many students, friends, and well-wishers stopped by to greet the old painter. “Ke gardai Lok dai?” “Interview—Kathmandu Post,” he replied each time with a smile that quivered with embarrassment. Ever accommodating and deferential, Lok Chitrakar is not a loquacious person.
What to say about Lok Chitrakar? He is a painter. That is what has defined him from the start. He could not tell me when or why he started painting. “Who knows these things for sure?” Lok dai was born in 1961 into a family of Chitrakars for whom ritual painting was a caste vocation. That is what his father did and all his male relatives too. Chitrakar’s father had passed away when he was ten and the family had always struggled financially, “Mero lifestyle chai ekdum garibi…I don’t remember ever having much,” he said. According to Chitrakar, ritual painting was not a commercially viable profession and so his father had always encouraged him and his sisters to go to school, “Hoping we would be better off… but he died early.” Chitrakars were ritual functionaries that had perhaps flourished under a different conception of society but changing contexts with new socio-political corollaries no longer accommodated them and as a result many were driven out of a livelihood. Chitrakar’s father had had little training outside of painting and had begrudgingly continued an undervalued profession that had pushed his family to the brink of penury. The custodians of culture had suffered for it, begrudgingly—trapped as they were in an uncertain situation that would take generations, of strife, to overcome. This is how the continuity of culture was ensured by the efforts of those who lost out—it is therefore, a hard won sense of continuity—though hardly won and hardly constant.
Paubha is not a continuous tradition; there were disjuncture in the history of its practice and its eventual resurgence was contingent on it dying out first. What I mean is the old tradition is a new tradition, a rehashing of historical styles and motifs in the 60s and 70s by painters like Lok Chitrakar who had worked at dealer-run karkhanas that catered to a bourgeoning tourist market—but that was back when he was young and still struggling to eke out a living. The man doesn’t even take commissions anymore.
“You goaded me so I’ll tell you,” said Chitrakar. “I remember watching my father work on one of his commissions. It was a wedding and he had been called upon to paint the walls and ceramic pots and such. Behuli lyai sakya thyo tara painting garne sakya thiyena” (the wedding was over but the painting was still not done). He smiled as he reminisced. “Given that they had called him only at the end, there was no way my father could have finished the work in time but that didn’t keep them from reprimanding him.” “What did you do?” “I was a child. I cleaned the brushes and would pretend to paint on the bare walls.” “What did you pretend to paint?” “Maybe a cowboy,” he laughed. Later, he showed me the first painting he ever made—on a small piece of paper, a painting of Ganesh. He was no more than twelve when he made it, the paper was worn and the paint faded but Lok dai’s affinity for painting was clear even then.
“There are paintings I have worked on for more than twenty years. It’s really hard to tell when a work is done. I think my proclivity to constantly rework things is the main reason I stopped taking commissions,” he said. Chitrakar likes to start working at around 3 am, “When the night is over but the day is yet to begin…before anyone is awake and everything is still.” He begins by scouring textual sources for concepts and motifs—sources like the Chitra Sutra from the Vishnu Dharmottara Purana. Upon settling on an idea he begins composing it. Painting is a handmade process that over time assumes a physical presence—every gesture, colour, size and placement of forms and objects therein refer to a dense symbology.
Puabha paintings were made to facilitate prayer and meditation. As such, looking over a long time is like an attempt to merge with something outside of oneself and the vast accumulation of visual information, which is the product of this kind of looking, is different from the way we usually see the world. “Why Paint?” I ask. “Kala bhanya loukik sansar bata alaukik sansar dekhaune madhyam ho… a vehicle for faith. Kala Samaj ko samrachana ho, ra samaj kala ko. Kala chaina bhane samaj pani hunna” (a work of art, whatever else its purpose, always beckons to the sublime. Art is a function of society but society is also a function of art. Wihtout art there is neither faith
nor society), he had said. By this time we had gone through several cups of tea and as the dusk settled, we parted ways.